The 1980s was a particularly brutal decade in industrial relations, with a number of catastrophic strike defeats for workers, unparalleled since the early 1920s. Some strikes over pay in the public services had mixed outcomes though local and workplace union organisation was sustained, even invigorated. These included the protracted NHS dispute of 1982, the series of rolling strikes by schoolteachers during 1984-87, and the local government white-collar strikes of 1989. But the defining event of the period, and symbolic of the prevailing mood, was the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85.
The miners' defeat was followed by a broader employer offensive to radically alter established terms and conditions of employment. Employers were aided in some notorious cases by their use of court injunctions against picketing and sympathy strikes and occasionally by sequestration (seizing by the courts) of union assets. Dismissal of strikers, or the fear of it, was becoming more frequent, while threats of closure to enforce unpopular changes on workforces were commonplace in some industries.
Major Strike Defeats
In November 1984, during the miners' strike, the first court case occurred over the failure to comply with the new balloting laws. Eight unions were taken to court for striking over pay and six of them had an injunction served on them by Austin Rover (formerly British Leyland). The TGWU was then fined £200,000 for contempt of court. The strike petered out and workers were warned that they faced instant dismissal if they took any unofficial action - until then a regular defence against the company's increasingly aggressive management.
In 1986, 5,500 national newspaper workers at News International struck over mass redundancies, following the introduction of new technology and the termination of collective agreements for the surviving workforce. All were dismissed, resulting in thirteen months of ultimately unsuccessful picketing of Rupert Murdoch's new production site at Wapping in East London, during which SOGAT's assets were sequestrated. The EETPU's involvement in procuring an alternative labour force for News International led to bitter recriminations, made more acute by Murdoch's refusal to subsequently recognise the strike-breaking union.
When, in 1988, P&O European Ferries at Dover proposed a major deterioration in terms and conditions to meet the competition of the Channel Tunnel, over 2,000 workers went on strike and were all dismissed. There was a split in the workforce - those returning to work facing union derecognition, while the remaining strikers faced an even longer defeated dispute than Wapping, along with sequestration of the funds of the seafarers' union (now the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers - RMT).
The government abolished the National Dock Labour Scheme (with its protections for registered dockers) in 1989. In response, the TGWU became stranded in a legal quagmire caused by balloting laws and its eventual unsuccessful defensive strike saw the dismissal of all its shop stewards at Tilbury (by then the only docks on the River Thames). Ironically, exactly a century earlier, the great London dock strike of 1889 had symbolised the most public victory of the 'new unionism' of its day. The dismissal of the remaining few hundred unionised Merseyside dockers during an unofficial dispute in 1995 led to the biggest (but eventually unsuccessful) strike support campaign of the 1990s.
Total strike activity across the economy fell in a series of steps through the 1980s to the historically low levels of the 1990s. However, the fragmentation of the railway industry in the 1990s led to an increase in strikes by ASLEF and the RMT as they sought to defend their members against the new employers. As most strikes before 1980 were unofficial, the decline was therefore mainly of this type of action. By the time that the Employment Act of 1990 forced unions to 'repudiate' all instances of unofficial (i.e. unballoted) action, such strikes had largely disappeared already, apart from in a few industries such as the Post Office. This indicated that legal changes were not the main reason for the reduction in strikes (as government publications seemed to suggest) and that other factors - such as economic calculations and fear of management reprisals, rather than benevolent employers - were responsible.
Despite major strike defeats spreading an air of pessimism, union organisation remained relatively intact, if subdued, in many workplaces. In the early 1980s, there were an estimated 335,000 workplace union representatives or shop stewards. This represented an important shift from twenty years earlier as shop steward systems spread across almost all areas of unionised working. In 2002, the TUC believed that there were still 230,000 workplace union representatives, including shop stewards, safety reps and union learning reps.
But this change in union presence had a downside. The workplace union became the dominant model and district organisation ceased to have the same importance that it had exercised even in the 1970s. This was further exacerbated by the exposure of many workplaces when several employers' associations withdrew from industry-level agreements during the 1980s and 1990s and when wages councils were abolished (1994). All these factors accentuated the tendency for many shop stewards to see their workplace in isolation from others. Faced with the same threats - such as similar attacks on working conditions, or the impact of global markets on firms' location policies - groups of workers increasingly battle on their own and find it difficult to counter their employers' arguments.
The Minimum Wage
When less able to sort out their own problems, unionised workers often look to the state to provide minimum standards. The National Union of Public Employees (one of the founders of UNISON), representing many of the lowest paid public service workers, had long campaigned for a statutory minimum wage and this emerged as TUC policy during the 1980s, gradually gathering broader support. With the abolition of wages councils (which had provided minimum standards for two million of the most vulnerable workers), the need for it became more urgent. The National Minimum Wage Act of 1998 established this important principle (which even the Conservative Party now accepts) but there have continued to be debates between unions as to the level at which it should be set. By comparison, the growth of executive pay has been obscene. At the start of the twenty-first century, the role of unions in defending and advancing the living standards and self-respect of working people is as important as it has ever been.
Dave Lyddon, Centre for Industrial Relations, Keele UniversityBack to top